20/365 Back to Dewey 1.8

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

Rather than taking us a step further, Dewey uses his final chapter to remind us where we’ve been and put to the future as well.
He points out he’s not attempting to justify his call to an experience-based they of education, saying he’s well aware that both conservatives and lie rails are well-removed from the actual workings of schools. The choices as Dewey sees them are a return to the reason and ideas of the ore-scientific age or a deeper and better utilization of the scientific method – giving it its rightful place as the basis for investigating the experiences he sees as key.
Failure, Dewey points out, is only possible if teachers agree to base their practice in experience examined through the scientific method without adequately utilizing that methodology.
To be successful, experiences must be thoughtfully designed with regard to the previous experiences of students, the mature knowledge of adults, and the thoughtful reflection on the goals of the experiences. To improvise or take a shortcut to learning is to sacrifice fidelity to experience and, thereby, learning.
Dewey concludes with his belief that we will attain this simple and difficult goal only when operating under a sound philosophy of experience.
This struck me most in that it wasn’t a hopeful call to action so much as it was a torch passing. Dewey seems to be saying, “Well, I’ve given you a plan. It’s up to you to follow it. If you choose not to, that’s fine, but we are all in trouble if you don’t make a decision one way or the other.
Looking at contemporary American schools, the landscape reveals the country didn’t make the decision en masse. While many schools languish in the same uncertainty Dewey warned against, two opposing forces are working to secure as much of that landscape as possible for either a purified version of what Dewey considered “traditional” education or the more slow-moving philosophy-driven “progressive” education he was championing.
It has not “become all one thing or all the other” to borrow a phrase. Instead, it has become some things some places and other things other places.
If this remains so, Dewey’s designs of a public education as the central democratizing force in society will never be brought to fruition.

19/365 Back to Dewey 1.7 – ‘Progressive Organization of Subject Matter’

Failure to give constant attention to development of the intellectual content of experiences and to obtain ever-increasing organization of facts and ideas may in the end merely strengthen the tendency towards a reactionary return to intellectual and moral authoritarianism.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

In conversation today, I was discussing Magdalene Lampert’s Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching in an attempt to highlight important texts related to the idea of legitimate peripheral participation and building communities of practice.

Another teacher has expressed frustration in attempting to bring project-based learning into the math classroom. More specifically, he was trying to convince his colleagues that this was a feat that could be accomplished in the elementary math curriculum. Lampert seemed an easy sell at that point.

If I’d only thought of it, I would have sent him to Dewey as well. Specifically, Chapter 7 in which the patron philosopher of education turns his attention toward subject matter and the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” learning.

Having already set up adults as holding mature understandings of the ideas and knowledge they are working to pass on to their students, Dewey here works to encourage those adults to convince those adults to pull as few punches as possible in the teaching and learning ring.

“The next step is the progressive development of what is already experienced into a fuller and richer and also more organized form, a form that gradually approximates that in which subject matter is presented to the skilled, mature person.”

In the words of David Perkins, teachers much work to teach the “whole game.”

The subjects and disciplines of the traditional classroom infrastructure are to be ignored, Dewey suggests, in exchange for a deeper look at how to build on the past experiences of students in full and meaningful ways. Young children learn from life experiences, he points out, our job is not to get in the way.

Even more than this, in deciding content for learning, teachers are to consider earlier experiences, be mindful of the fullness of his lived understanding of the world, and attempt to craft learning experiences that thicken students’ understandings in authentic ways. As he’s done in earlier chapters, Dewey is presenting his readers with ideas that are simple, but hardly ever easy.

What’s more, he outlines a basic process for learning experiences. They must challenge because, “growth depends upon the presence of difficulty to be overcome by the exercise of intelligence.” From there, Dewey embraces the scientific method in a manner so unabashed that it could be described as devout.

Students should observe, hypothesize, organize, and build their knowledge. As Dewey called on teachers to develop a critical and thoughtful theory of education earlier on, here we find him transferring those same requirements to students in their learning.

Only when teaching is carried out thusly, Dewey concludes, will the subject matter be properly defined and organized.

18/365 Back to Dewey 1.6 – ‘The Meaning of Purpose’

Since freedom resides in the operations of intelligent observation and judgment by which a purpose is developed, guidance given by the teacher to the exercise of the pupils’ intelligence is an aid to freedom, not a restriction upon it.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

For Chapter 6, Dewey continues clarification of terms, setting his sights on purpose.

The chapter provides yet another clarification of the frequent view that Dewey was proposing a melee approach to learning, letting students loose in a situation and then cleaning them up for learning later on. In Ch. 6, we find the opposite as Dewey highlights the importance of pausing in moments of impulse so that those impulses might lead to desire.

If the earlier chapters were instructing readers on the importance of a philosophical and critically considered approach to the broader scope of progressive education, here we find that need translated to the individual classrooms and students. What is being done, at all times, must be considered thoughtfully. While this is not surprising from a philosopher, Dewey’s considerations are not philosophical as much as they are practical.

If we are to have purpose in education, we must consider our impulses regarding our experiences, hold tight to them, and reflect on how (or whether) we would like to see them enacted.

To do this, Dewey asks that teachers and students observe the surroundings of the learning and move from there to collect knowledge, organize that knowledge and then set out with purpose driven by that knowledge.

He sets it out in clearer terms:

 The formation of purposes is, then, a rather complex intellectual operation. It involves (1) observation of surrounding conditions; (2) knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past, a knowledge obtained partly by recollection and partly from the in- formation, advice, and warning of those who have had a wider experience; and (3) judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify. A purpose differs from an original impulse and desire through its translation into a plan and method of action based upon foresight of the consequences of acting under given observed conditions in a certain way.


Rather than rejecting tools of traditional education wholesale, Dewey asks for a blending. Attend to the impulses and nature of students, yes, but do not do so without an eye to judgement, observation, consideration and guidance.

17/365 Back to Dewey 1.5 – ‘The Nature of Freedom’

It may be a loss rather than a gain to escape from the control of another person only to find one’s conduct dictated by immediate whim and caprice; that is, at the mercy of impulses into whose formation intelligent judgment has not entered. A person whose conduct is controlled in this way has at most only the illusion of freedom. Actually forces over which he has no command direct him.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

Though one of the shorter of the 8 chapters in this already-short tome, no. 5 packs a punch as I Dewey takes a moment to extoll the virtues of freedom – particularly freedom in schools.

Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed well knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires, and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this facade.

What sells this passage for me, which ultimately sums up the chapter perfectly, is Dewey’s own wink to the idea that, “We’ve all been there, right?” While the vast majority of his arguments and reasoning have been rooted in the language of philosophy up to this point, in Ch. 5, Dewey pulls back the curtain a bit to acknowledge that, in progressive education, he’s also describing the types of schools he would have liked to attend.

Freedom in learning, Dewey is writing, allows for action in learning. This, stands in stark opposition to the passivity he identifies in traditional school experiences.

And just as I was starting to wonder about this constant action and the criticism I could see it inviting, Dewey paused for a moment to speak to the importance of pausing. Learning, (true, active learning) my should be followed by moments of stillness and reflection so that students can take the information and knowledge they’ve gathered in their actions and organize it in a way that makes their experiences meaningful and opens questions for further experiences.

Freedom, yes. Freedom without organization and reflection, no.

16/365 Back to Dewey 1.4 – ‘Social Control’

The principle that development of experience comes about through interaction means that education is essentially a social process.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

In Chapter 4, Dewey gets to the crux of the argument against many detractors as well as his warning to those who are doing progressive education wrong. Control, as it turns out, is not a dirty word. It is also, inescapable.

Control and rules, Dewey points out, are present in even the simplest of schoolyard games. When children bristle at rules, it is more the attempt of others to circumvent or wrongly implement rules that causes the problem, not the presence of rules themselves. In education, too, Dewey acknowledges the need for rules.

“[C]ontrol of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts. For even in a competitive game there is a certain kind of participation, of sharing in a common experience.”

In a learning experience, children know the difference between a fair rule and a rule brought about by an adult in the interest of asserting individual power. The latter case is toxic to learning experiences.

What’s more, Dewey begins to look up the hierarchy of schools and points that much of what is expected of teachers is not of the teachers’ devising, but from somewhere up above. These rules and expectations come not from the community, but from the individual (in some form or another). Progressive education attempts to move counter to this design, “in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility.”

The rules are written by the community at all levels. Here is the seed of what I firmly believe, we must want for teachers what we want for students. That goes for question asking as much as for community formation.

Most striking to me is Dewey’s acknowledgement that teachers must also prepare for those students who are uncertain what to make of this new freedom to co-create community and experience. They are, he writes, broken by their previous experiences with schools, and teachers must be prepared to adapt and align their practice to helping to repair those wounds.

To help those who have been broken by traditional schools and to implement progressive education well, Dewey stresses the need of planning in all things. The weakness of control Dewey acknowledges in progressive schools, comes not from an absence of control.

“It is much more likely to arise from failure to arrange in advance for the kind of work (by which I mean all kinds of activities engaged in) which will create situations that of themselves tend to exercise control over what this, that, and the other pupil does and how he does it. This failure most often goes back to lack of sufficiently thoughtful planning in advance.”

And in that planning, there must be the ability to adapt to individual needs as they arise while also helping to use the knowledge of those who have come before to move students to the desired learning experience.

Again, this is simple, but not easy.

15/365 Back to Dewey 1.3 – ‘Criteria of Experience’

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Educationchapter-by-chapter.

If Chapter 2 saw as its purpose the definition of the need for a theory of experience, in Chapter 3, Dewey sets about defining what need happen in education experiences. Before he can do that, though, he sets the “autocratic and harsh” practices of traditional schools in relief against the democratic goals of progressive education.

For me, the poster-worthy section of the chapter comes as Dewey asks whether we would prefer democracy to something else:

Can we find any reason that does not ultimately come down to the belief that democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, one which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do non-democratic and anti-democratic forms of social life? Does not the principle of regard for individual freedom and for decency and kindliness of human relations come back in the end to the conviction that these things are tributary to a higher quality of experience on the part of a greater number than are methods of repression and coercion or force? Is it not the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale?

Were it not so lengthy, I’d say I’d found the premise of my next tattoo. Schools, Dewey is arguing, should be the training grounds of citizenship and act as the vanguard of humanity and freedom. These are better goals than adequate yearly progress.

If these are our goals, Dewey moves on to explain the types of experiences necessary to help students reach those goals. They must be continuous and promote growth in general.

Those experiences Dewey is attempting to define? They must arouse curiosity, strengthen initiative, and set up desires and purposes sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way. To judge this, we need only ask toward and into what an experience moves an individual. Simple questions, again, with no easy answers.

Here too, Dewey argues the importance of the adult in helping to shape the experience. There’s no point to having maturity, he writes, if we are not to use that maturity of experience to help craft the conditions whereby students might better learn. It is not enough to say, “Go, have experiences.” Adults are beholden to draw on their knowledge and their own experiences to help turn students toward experiences that might fulfill our democratic goals.

All of this must ask the question, “Have I created something that increases the innate curiosity of my students?” rather than depletes it as is often the case of traditional schooling? This, in the end, is Dewey’s primary criterion for experience. The only way to accomplish this is to understand the student in the moment and work to craft experiences that build on a continuity of understanding toward the goal of increasing that student’s drive to ask and seek more.

Traditional education, Dewey writes, asks students to adapt to school, but fails to adapt to the students.

This is more to do with listening, it seems to me, than speaking. If we wish for our students to ask questions of the world, we must ask questions of our students. Often, when we speak of modeling, we have no trouble modeling how we get to the answer of a problem or how we build the finished product.

What we’re not great at, where teachers are found lacking, is the modeling of how we got to the questions and how we came to shape those questions in useful ways. If we want our students to be the builders of great ideas, they must be the askers of great questions. Too often, classroom questions fail to move past the meager, “What are we supposed to be doing?”

Dewey’s idea of “collateral learning” is diminished as a possibility when this is the case.

13/365 Back to Dewey 1.2 – ‘The Need for a Theory of Experience’

Just because traditional education was a matter of routine in which the plans and programs were handed down from the past, it does not follow that progressive education is a matter of planless improvisation.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

Dewey begins his second chapter with what soon becomes a familiar drum beat – we cannot create a new theory of education simply by defining ourselves as what we are not. Progressives, Dewey points out, are at risk of this if all we manage to do is say, “We are against traditional ways of playing school.”

He then turns his attention to the idea of experiences and clarifies that education based on experience is not an idea unique to progressives. All education is experience. Dewey, in contrast, is calling for a theory of experience that stakes a claim on what experience in education should accomplish, “Any experience is miseducative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”

If every classroom (traditional or not) is a site of experience, Dewey argues the importance we must note is the quality of experience which depends on two aspects, “agreeableness or disagreeableness” and “its influence on later learning.”

Again, as in Chapter 1, Dewey takes pains to explain experience is not meant as improvisation or as putting the things and people in a space and hoping what we want to achieve is achieved. This strikes me as humorous given Dewey was writing Experience & Education as a reflection and attempt to right the course of progressive education. Decades later, we’re misinterpreting progressive teaching in the same ways.

Here too, Dewey acknowledges the difficulty of progressive education compared to traditional schooling. Traditional schools could plug along, doing a variation today of what they did yesterday. Progressive schools, in crafting experiences need both a theory and a critical eye for how to implement that theory.

As is so often the case, the work worth doing is the more difficult work.

Progressive education is simple, Dewey admits, but that should not be confused with easy, “[A] coherent theory of experience, affording positive direction to selection and organization of appropriate educational methods and materials, is required by the attempt to give new direction to the work of the schools. The process is a slow and arduous one. It is a matter of growth and there are many obstacles, which tend to obstruct growth and to deflect it into wrong lines.”

Anyone who has ever worked within a progressive school knows this to be true. On the worst days, the struggle to re-invent schooling in a way that remains aligned with progressive philosophy can result in traditional schooling and their neo-traditional counterparts appearing appealing if for no other reason than their ease. On the best days, though, connecting students with learning experiences structured and based on the wells of knowledge provided by teachers and communities can fill the progressive experience with an undeniable sense of purpose and worth.

Still, though, this chapter reminds us of the dangers of a good idea in vague minds. Dewey closes with a prescient warning of attacks of traditionalists on progressive ideals and what must be done to rebuff those attacks:

[E]ducational reactionaries, who are now gathering force, use the absence of adequate intellectual and moral organization in the newer type of school as proof not only of the need of organization, but to identify any and every kind of organization with that instituted before the rise of experimental science. Failure to develop a conception of

organization upon the empirical and experimental basis gives reactionaries a too easy victory.

Dewey realized the need for experimentation, evidence and a well-reasoned argument if progressive schools were to take a place of prominence in American education. I can’t help feeling we’ve failed to heed that warning.

12/365 Back to Dewey 1.1

After a year and a half of grad school across two separate institutions, we’re finally moving away from paying lip service to Dewey in discussion of policy and a course is asking us to actually read what he wrote. It’s a return to the roots not only of progress pedagogy, but of the ideas that inform my own practice as well.

Specifically, we’re look at Dewey’s Experience and Education. (Read along if you like, I’ll be examining a chapter each day for the next 8 days.) Most exciting there is the fact that the text came later in Dewey’s career, at a time when he had enough perspective to stand back and look at the attempted enaction of the beliefs he championed. As much as it sets an agenda and outlines goals, Experience and Education serves a reflection on how progressives had lost their way or misunderstood the initial map.

A short text, Dewey fits his ideas into 8 chapters. Rather than a summary of the entire text, I’ll be thinking here about the content of each chapter. Famously dense, Dewey’s writing deserves a closer read than many contemporary education writers.

Ch. 1

Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Dewey begins with an analysis of our love of dichotomies and sets up the battle of progressives and traditionalists (today’s reformers).

Given students’ distance from intended subject matter, Dewey asserts traditionalists find that subject matter “must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features,” thus limiting much legitimate participation by students.

This matter “is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the way in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future.”

Dewey then lays out the oppositions to be found in progressive schools:

To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed

making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

Most interestingly, and where I’ve encountered the most frequent misreadings of Dewey is his understanding of controls. He argues not for an absence of control, but for control rooted in authentic and catalyzing learning experiences. What are the controls inherent to the genuine experiences we hope to provide students? How can the adults who have participated in these experiences help to control students’ experiences in a positive way?

These and other questions are key for Dewey in Ch. 1. He outlines the importance of critical thinking in the development of a new way of thinking about and organizing school experiences. “For any theory that and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles.” It is not enough to stand for something; one must also struggle with the questions of what it means and looks like to stand for that thing.

Dewey sets up Ch. 2 with the question of how to bridge the past with students’ present in real ways. He frames it as a question that is new to the story of education: “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?”

How, indeed? Stepping into this text raised several concerns for me regarding the current educational practice and policy landscapes. Dewey’s words resonate deeply with me. As I read, I find myself nodding and saying to myself, “Yes, this is what we must do.”

The problem is this is what we have needed to do since long before Dewey put these words to the page. His thoughts have served as a call to arms for generations, and still we falter, making the same mistakes on new and grander scales.

To some extent, I can understand the difficulties. Progressive thinking about education means turning away from or turning a critical eye toward the way we’ve always done things. That, on its own, is scary.

Still, we’ve had time to get over our fears. We’ve had time to ask the questions Dewey poses about our educational practices. Why, then, aren’t we working to develop better answers to those questions and then build schools around those answers?